It has been 50 years since Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This important federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies. It also prohibits disability-based discrimination in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors. It is widely regarded as a major milestone in the fight of employment equity and access for disabled people.
The act faced many challenges before it was adopted. Two versions were vetoed by President Richard Nixon before he signed a third. In his second veto message, Nixon stated, “This bill is one of several now before the Congress which mask bad legislation beneath alluring labels.”
“Their supporters would have the American public believe that each of these bills would further an important social cause, but they neglect to warn the public that the cumulative effect of a Congressional spending spree would be a massive assault upon the pocketbooks of millions of men and women in this country. They also fail to warn us that simply throwing money at problems does not solve anything; it only creates poor legislation which frequently misses the target.”
The vetoes were a great blow to people with disabilities, rehabilitation clinics, workshops and research projects. Individual states lost millions of dollars in needed funding.
The March 1973 veto sparked protests led by young disability rights activists. They gathered on Madison Avenue in New York City to demand that the legislation be passed.
While some newspaper editorials hailed Nixon’s fiscal prudence, others decried the veto and what it would mean to disabled people. The St. Cloud Daily Times reported in May 1973 that at a conference led by the Minnesota Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, attendees expressed disappointment about Nixon’s second veto of the act.
Congressman Benjamin A. Gilman (R-New York) was among those who introduced a new version of the act in 1973. The measure was presented as a compromise.
“The goal of training the handicapped to become productive citizens is one I strongly endorse,” Gilman said. “This measure will accomplish that objective without adding an unbearable burden to the budget.”
The bill had foes in Congress, including Rep. Earl R. Landgrebe (R-Indiana), who brought forward a scaled-down version of the bill favored by Nixon.
Months later, when he signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 into law, Nixon praised it as creating “expanded job opportunities and further(ing) steps toward independence” as well as demonstrating the good that can come from “executive-legislative cooperation.”
Interestingly, newspaper photos of Nixon signing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 appeared on some front pages alongside coverage of the Watergate break-in and the subsequent political scandal. Watergate would eventually trigger Nixon’s 1974 resignation.
The Rehabilitation Act has had a long reach. It established what would become the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), which is now part of the Administration for Community Living or ACL. The National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC) helps ensure that the research reaches organizations that put it into practice.
Read more about the 1973 legislation at The Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Independence Bound
Read about the act and anniversary celebration on the U.S. Department of Labor blog, at Examining 50 Years of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 503
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org